Leading NBC out of the ratings cellar

Fortune's Barney Gimbel interviews Marc Graboff, Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment.

By Barney Gimbel, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- The good news: You've just been promoted to run a major network. The bad news: It's ranked four out of four. Such is the lot of Marc Graboff, who was recently named co-head of NBC, where he'll share the top job with Ben Silverman, producer of "Ugly Betty" and "The Office."

With ad revenue plummeting - even as NBC recently closed the first big deals from television's upfront season - the network is in desperate need of a hit infusion that can reverse a three-year ratings slide. Graboff, who got his start in Hollywood as the first mailroom employee at talent agency CAA, recently spoke to Fortune writer Barney Gimbel about his plans to help save NBC.

Must-fix TV: "Inside guy" Graboff

How's the shotgun marriage with you and Ben Silverman meant to work?

When we were in talks with Ben, [Graboff's boss] Jeff [Zucker] floated the idea of he and I partnering. Ben was thrilled to have me as the inside guy, running the business side, so he could focus on being the outside guy. Ben's out there beating the bushes and keeping his eye on the zeitgeist so that he can bring us hit television shows. I'll take care of everything else.

How will you two run things differently?

We're going to have to reinvent the broadcast television business. Advertisers aren't getting the value out of a 30-second spot that they used to, so we need to help them deliver impressions in a way that the audience won't ignore or skip.

What does that mean in terms of shows? A new Texaco Star Theater?

It could. Pond's presents "The Starter Wife" on USA, for example, and I think Debra Messing washes her face with it. Or it could be like "Friday Night Lights," where Applebee's is a hangout for characters and gets prominent integration into the show.

The pilot for your new series "Bionic Woman" is said to have cost around $8 million. As production costs rise and ad revenue continues to go down, does that mean budgets have to come down, and we'll see fewer hours of programmed television?

As long as advertisers continue to migrate their dollars away from broadcast television, yes. Toss in viewer fragmentation and rising production costs, and you can't afford to pay for 19 hours a week of original high-quality programming. Something has got to give. For years everyone programmed Saturday night with originals. Now nobody programs Saturday. Maybe that will happen with Friday?

If you could have any show on any network, what would you pick?

[Fox's] "American Idol." No second thoughts. Or, "American Idol" just not on the air.

Sam Waterston is replacing Fred Thompson as the DA on "Law & Order." Any thoughts?

Yes. That means in 2012 you'll see Sam Waterston running for President.  Top of page